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U.S. State Prison Population Declines for First Time in a Decade

Recent advance data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicates that not only has the rate of people entering the U.S. prison system declined in the past year, but the state prison population actually dropped in 2009 following a decade of growth.

In 2009 the number of people sent to state prisons nationwide decreased by 2,941, or .2 percent, compared with the previous year. In all, 24 states experienced a reduction in their prison populations last year.

In Michigan, which saw the largest drop, the prison population declined by 3,260 – a reduction of 6.7 percent. The California prison system decreased by 2,395 prisoners, while New York dropped by 1,660 and Texas by 1,257. The most dramatic reduction in terms of percentage was Rhode Island, with a decline of 371 prisoners, representing 9.2 percent of that state’s prison population.

“The change has been dramatic,” said Rhode Island Department of Corrections director A.T. Wall. “The staff is less harried ... there’s a sense that we’re in charge, a general feeling that things are calmer, more orderly.”

These drops in state prison populations were mostly – but not completely – offset by increases in 26 other states, including Pennsylvania (up 2,214 prisoners), Florida (up 1,527) and Louisiana (up 1,399).

As of mid-year 2009, BJS data also reflected a decline in the number of black prisoners nationwide, dropping to 841,000 from 846,000 in 2008. However, the incarceration rate for black males is still more than six times that of white males, and black females are three times as likely to be sent to prison as their white counterparts.

“While the declining number of African Americans in prison is encouraging,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research group devoted to lowering incarceration rates, “the scale of racial disparity in imprisonment is still dramatic.”

Overall, the rate of incarceration in the United States fell from 509 prisoners per 100,000 population in 2008 to 504 in 2009. One contributing factor was a drop in crime; according to FBI statistics, last year crime was down in every category. Another factor has to do with finances.

In the midst of the nation’s economic crisis, many feel the decline is a result of budget-strapped states seeking ways to reduce the high costs of their corrections systems, which in some cases has translated to the politically-unpopular option of releasing more prisoners.

With budget shortfalls in nearly every state, many have taken a fresh look at their sentencing, parole and drug offense policies. Rhode Island recently ended mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, while Massachusetts and Ohio are also looking at reforms, and Michigan has developed a comprehensive re-entry initiative.

“More and more policymakers are realizing that new technologies and strategies are more effective and less expensive than warehousing somebody in a $30,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cell,” remarked Adam Gelb, a director at the Pew Center on the States, which tracks incarceration trends.

Although such moves have been applauded by some, they also have their critics. Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, worries that the changes in criminal justice policy are for the wrong reasons. “The issue for us is that it seems to be an issue of financial expediency rather than a justice issue,” he said.

Of course, it was decades of unchecked growth in the nation’s prison population that led to the need for such financial expediency, after states realized they simply could not afford to maintain their draconian sentencing and imprisonment policies. Also, mass incarceration carries its own societal cost.

“The [prison] costs that accumulate down the years, they have an impact, too, on funding for education, for health programs, for tax rates,” said Rhode Island DOC director Wall. “And while that can’t be captured with the same impact or force that a horrible crime [can], the fact is, that has an impact, too.”

This lesson has yet to be learned by the federal Bureau of Prisons, however, which in 2009 saw an increase of 6,838 prisoners, resulting in a .2% net increase in the combined state and federal prison systems last year. Overall, the combined federal and state prison population in the U.S. has been increasing since at least 1980.

Sources: The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Bureau of Justice Statistics

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